It’s almost 4 p.m. and Sarah Westfall, a senior biomedical engineering major, is just leaving her research lab. The sun is getting low, but you can still make out the silhouette of the Evansdale Residential Complex, four of the tallest buildings in Morgantown, brushing the darkening sky. This is where Westfall sleeps, studies, eats, meets friends, makes memories and dreams of her future. It’s home, but it’s also work. Westfall holds one of the oldest and most important jobs on campus — a job that’s changed dramatically over the years and, yet, remained strikingly the same across generations. Westfall is a resident assistant (RA) — a live-in mentor — for dozens of fellow students, many no older than she is.
It’s not an easy job, juggling the weight of academics with RA obligations, which range from helping students find resources on campus to arranging beneficial programming to enforcing rules and making sure everyone in the hall feels safe and cared about — about 20 hours a week officially. But for the students who take on the challenge, the experience of leading and creating community is priceless. “I personally think it’s one of the hardest jobs. It’s the front line,” said West Virginia University Dean of Students Corey Farris, once an RA himself.
“You’re a student. You’re caring for people. It’s 24/7. But it’s incredibly rewarding work. The feeling of seeing your residents get a good GPA at the end of the semester, seeing them get into their degree program, seeing them graduate — that’s what it’s all about. It’s humans caring for humans.”
Associate Vice President and Executive Director of the Office of Global Affairs Amber Brugnoli still remembers being a shy freshman in the late 1990s, settling into her room alone and feeling daunted by the idea of introducing herself to the sea of people outside her door. That is, until her RA broke the ice. “I can still remember a knock on my door, turning around and there was my RA. And she was like, ‘Hey, you know, there’s wings and soda in the lounge right now if you want to come with me,’” said Brugnoli, MA ’11 Political Science, PhD ’17, Political Science and Government.
Later, when she became an RA herself, Brugnoli found herself knocking on her residents’ doors, drawing people out, reminding them they weren’t alone. “There I was copying my RA’s example, getting a group together in the hallway to walk to an event so no one had to show up alone. And as we walk, I talk to them about campus. We talk about the shortcut from Arnold Hall to the Lair that’s not on the map, about how to get your posters to stick on the walls, about how hot it is, because we had no air conditioning then. None of us know each other, but it happens naturally.”
Current RA Zac Backus, a junior majoring in communication sciences and disorders, says his RA changed his entire freshman experience.
“My freshman-year RA played a big part in my adjustment to college, and I wanted to be like that for incoming freshmen who may be away from their families for the first time,” he said. “We are often the first person that someone who is new to campus will go to for advice, whether that’s because they don’t know how to make friends on campus or feel as if they are struggling with academics.”
West Virginia University Dean of Students Corey Farris
Often, these peer leaders are the first connection a student makes on campus. And the first WVU staff to call them out when they make a mistake. Farris, BSBA ’81, calls the residence hall environment a microcosm of adulthood. “It’s a safe environment to try things out and make mistakes,” he said. “You make them in front of your RAs and your peers, and you know your peers are thinking about, and sometimes doing, the same things — in many ways, your peers can also be much more supportive. They can say, ‘Yeah, I understand. I made that mistake, too. It hurts, doesn’t it?’”
By 4 p.m., Westfall is headed to the desk at Brooke Hall, where she's scheduled for duty tonight. "Fo a normal afternoon shift, you are either on duty until midnight or on call until 8 a.m. the next morning. On-call RAs also make rounds in the building. But whether on-call or not, Westfall said, "You have to be in the building and have your phone's ringer on."
Tonight, Westfall is signing in residents’ guests, making sure those who enter the building are residents, checking out equipment like vacuums, providing temporary keys for residents who (inevitably) lock themselves out and “just being there to answer questions and make sure things are running smoothly,” Westfall said.
Eric O’Hara, associate director of housing operations — and an RA at WVU in the 1990s — said nothing in an RA’s day is ever typical. “Whether it’s a crisis or just somebody who wants to stop by and talk in the middle of the night, it’s not a job where you just have office hours. It can be all over the place.”
Farris remembers one particular crisis that he and his residents — he still talks to many of them on a regular basis — will never forget. “One of my students had an appendicitis attack and we had to get him to WVU hospital quickly,” Farris said. “He had his appendix removed, and I organized all the guys on his floor, 20 or so, to visit him in the hospital. We still talk about that.”
RAs are highly trained (before their first day and on-the-job) in crisis management, communication, where and how to find campus resources, event planning and more — and they have been from the early years, but as students’ needs have changed, so has the type of preparation. “I remember when I was an RA in the 1990s, if we had to contact our supervisor, we called a pager,” O’Hara laughed.
Today, RA training has another layer — information overload. “Now, there are so many ways to communicate with students and their families,” he said. “And we have many more resources to help them if they are floundering. But getting students to use those resources or identify that they need them is harder. Most of the time, students are going to try to find that information on their own on their phone very quickly. Without a guide, you can get lost sometimes.”
From interactions with residents to planned events to hall decorating, an RA’s day is all logged on a computer and becomes a big part of the portfolio of experience each takes away from their time in the hall. “As much as I am a resource for them, they really help me grow as a person. It is very rewarding,” Westfall said.
The diversity of people, personalities and cultures is one thing residence halls offer that are vital to the student experience — something many students don’t encounter before they set foot on campus. Few know this better than Gabrielle St. Léger, a three-time graduate of WVU, residence hall coordinator in the early 2000s and WVU Alumni Association board member who is now vice president for student development and campus life at LA Salle University and a champion of diversity, equity and inclusion.
St. Léger, BA ’01, English, MA ’01, Secondary Education and Language Arts, EdD ’12, Educational Leadership Studies and Higher Education Administration, credits her time in the hall with giving her career and her confidence a boost. “I started my student affairs career with my first full-time job as the residence hall coordinator for Arnold Hall,” she said. She remembers the unique experience of overseeing RAs and residents (and the hall mascot, her pug aptly named Arnold) and cites it as one key part of why she chose to stay in higher education — a place she felt she could truly make a difference, especially for the underrepresented students on campus.
As residence hall coordinator, St. Léger worked to found and advise a minority retention student organization named The Brothers and Sisters United and later researched ways to build pipeline programs for students of color aimed at college success and leadership. One role she found was ideal for building leadership skills: the role of RA. “Look at the transformation that can happen in college over a period of four years,” she said. “That’s the beauty. This time period provides some of the fastest advancement in development. So much happens.” And she said it’s critical for students of color to see themselves in leadership roles like these. In this respect, higher education still has a long way to go, she said. “We have to create those spaces. For people to think those spaces are not necessary today, that would be a mistake. I think higher education needs to value those spaces in order to create a diverse leadership in our students. We have to start on the college campus.”
In residence halls, students grapple not only with academics but with their own identities and their own mental health, all while surrounded by peers. A good RA is the first and last line of defense against the many challenges that come with that transition from adolescence to adulthood. “It’s such an intense experience when you’ve got 25 or 30 people living together on the same floor,” Farris said. “You see these people at their best. You see them in their worst. And now, for RAs, there are new responsibilities that are much heavier today for institutions and for society as a whole.”
As RAs, Backus and Westfall see these struggles firsthand. “I feel like one of the biggest issues facing RAs today is the increasing mental health crisis,” Backus said. “When I come across a mental health issue on my floor, I usually like to sit down and talk with the person who may be struggling. It helps to have a good one-on-one conversation with someone and see what you can do to help.”
When she first started as an RA, Westfall said she had an open-door policy. “I left my door cracked most of the time when I was in the room, and it was like, just knock and come in.” But post-pandemic and with her future on the horizon, she’s more mindful of her own needs now. Staying on top of her own mental health makes her a better RA, she said, and WVU residence life staff support her. “It’s about sitting down and self-evaluating, deciding what can I do to still perform this role to my best ability but also be taking care of myself? Because everyone will tell you, we are students first.”
RAs create spaces for others to talk through personal, academic and mental health struggles.
But in 2022, an RA is rarely fully off duty. “Although I do have ‘office hours’ set, most of my residents come and ask me questions between 8 and 11 p.m.,” Westfall said. “Usually, they will either come knock on my door or they will contact me via an app called Remind.” Westfall said all the residents on her floor use Remind for its convenience. The app allows them to text her any time of the day or night. And she responds as quickly as she can.
Essential face-to-face is still the gold standard. “If my residents come to my room, they sit on my extra twin bed that I converted into a couch and will talk with me for however long they need. We talk about everything, from academics to roommate complications to career paths to significant others, to mental health topics and self-care.”
That’s why, from 5 to 6 p.m. at the desk, whenever she gets a spare moment, Westfall is either catching up on homework or digging into her job search — so she has time and space later to help her residents if they need it. Tonight, after her shift at the desk, she plans to grab dinner at Café Evansdale — a few precious moments for herself. “I usually eat dinner with my boyfriend, who I have been with for three years, since we typically don’t see each other earlier in the day,” she said. But if she spots one of her residents eating alone, she never hesitates to invite them to eat with her. She’s an RA, after all, and you never really stop being an RA.
“One of the things that I’ve jokingly said, but there’s some truth to it,” Farris said, “once an RA, always an RA.”
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